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New environment for quantum computing

New building designed for scientists whose goal is to “discover” a new kind of computer.


When the architects first asked Raymond Laflamme what he wanted for his section of the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre at the University of Waterloo, he did two things. First, Dr. Laflamme, who is executive director of the university’s Institute of Quantum Computing, drew a sketch of a building whose central atrium was surrounded by offices and labs. Then he started to talk about the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, England where he had studied with physicist Stephen Hawking. At that institute, he said, creativity thrived on the sparks that flew when people accidently bumped into others whose area of expertise lay outside their own.

“Ray wanted a form of social engineering wherein you created an environment where scientists, who are by tradition quite introverted, are sort of forced to act together in a serendipitous way,” says Marianne McKenna, a partner with Toronto-based KPMB Architects, the firm that designed and oversaw the $160-million facility over its seven-year construction period. The building opened officially in September.

What came from his rough drawing is a building housing the Institute of Quantum Computing, or IQC, joined by an atrium and shared laboratory spaces to the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. The IQC itself is four stories high and has an atrium on each level that can be reached by a suspended staircase. Offices jut out from the atriums, as do “mind spaces” – lounges, rooms for eating and meeting, interspersed with whiteboards, and all designed to provoke fruitful, casual interactions. The building was officially opened on September 21, 2012.

The institute’s goal is to build a quantum computer, something no one has built before, based on principles that nobody is quite sure will work. With this in mind Dr. Laflamme says that spontaneous interactions are important because the institute’s hoped-for breakthrough requires expertise from disparate disciplines – cryptography, chemistry, computer science, quantum physics and mathematics – which traditionally have ignored one another. The architecture also reflects an opposite truth: coming up with ideas isn’t always a group process. On the third floor is a quiet room where people can reflect without having to interact with others.

Moreover, to build a quantum computer that stores information on an atomic level “you have to design an entire building where one atom won’t accidentally bump into another,” says Dr. Laflamme. To approach this goal, KPMB collaborated with specialists across North America to develop ways to reduce building vibration, temperature and humidity, as well as reduce radio waves and electromagnetic variations to almost infinitesimal levels.

The entire Quantum-Nano Centre is physically linked by elevated walkways to the mathematics, biology and engineering departments and faculties on the Waterloo campus, with the hope that ideas and individuals will flow back and forth between them as well.

Finally, the architects considered the perspective of people looking at the IQC part of the complex from the outside. A series of windows express, in their changing reflectivity, opacity and translucency, quantum physics’ fundamental reality of something that can be in one state and another at exactly the same time. (The Quantum Superposition theory says that on the atomic level, things like electrons can exist as a zero, a one, or both modes simultaneously.) The outside of the companion Nanotechnology building is sheathed and supported by girders whose hexagonal shapes mirror a buckminsterfullerene, a round molecule whose qualities the nanotechnology researchers are trying to understand and exploit. Interior struts couldn’t be used, because they would have allowed vibration. So what looks like decoration, explains one of the architects, actually has purpose: the girders are holding up the building.

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  1. Jay / December 6, 2012 at 19:19

    Wow this is such cool stuff. A fellow alumni sent this link my way and I just had a chance to read through the article. Pretty cool to see this stuff happening anywhere in Canada, yet alone Waterloo!

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